I saw a wonderful thing at the mall the other day. I was standing outside the supermarket when five models wearing replica Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dresses walked by, each leading a pure bred dog in tow. I readily joined the parade of people accumulating behind these designer dog walkers, and followed them throughout the mall where they would occasionally pause, cue music, perform choreographed poses, then move on.
Let’s take a step back. Hoog Catharijne, where I spied these models, is both a shopping mall and the main thoroughfare connecting Utrecht Central Station to the city’s center. Superlative facts you might find useful: In 1973 when it was built, Hoog Catharijne was the largest covered shopping center in Europe and it was quite posh indeed. Adjacent Utrecht Central Station is the Netherlands’ busiest station, the hub of the Dutch rail system and other transportation networks. Both are under long-term construction as part of a comprehensive plan to renovate what’s termed the Station Area, currently home to some of the ugliest buildings and least navigable passages in an otherwise charming city.
Any glamor once found here is gone, but the area is not entirely without merit. As unlikely as it might sound, for three months this summer Hoog Catharijne is host to The Call of the Mall, one of the most unique, smart, and ambitious public art exhibitions I’ve attended in a while.
Fernando Sánchez Castillo, Tank Man, 2013; Photo: Andrea Alessi.
Most of the artwork was commissioned specifically for the exhibition from an impressive roster of artists. There are sculptures, installations, and videos, but also more ephemeral projects like behind-the-scenes tours and both one-off and recurring performances (n.b.: Sylvie Fleury’s dog walking models, observable every Friday afternoon). There’s an interactive wishing well/commodity exchange, a giant rooftop teapot overlooking the motorway, a group exhibition-within-exhibition squatting in the concrete shell of an abandoned office complex, a kinetic rope fountain, a parking garage stocked with monochrome vintage cars, and a sound installation that turns on only after the shops have closed. A number of projects address the mall’s commercial culture, but the works are never themselves reduced to saleable objects: no one is shopping for art here.
The viewers are equally diverse. Some come specifically for the exhibition, consuming it in a single visit; others travel through every day, gradually taking in the occasional artwork either by circumstance or design (I’ve spent much of the summer doing the latter). Anticipating this range, the show neither panders to the masses, nor rewards the initiated alone. One of the most accessible works is Fernando Sánchez Castillo’s Tank Man, a hyper-real replica of the man who blocked the column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests. Positioned in a narrow pedestrian bridge, he gets so much attention from passersby that he’s been placed under guarded supervision to prevent people touching him to “see if he’s real”. To those “in-the-know” it sounds like a cheap trick, but Tank Man is more than his capacity for mimesis. In Tiananmen Square he stopped oppressive military forces. In the mall he stops a different type of traffic in its tracks, earning the exhibition more than a few admirers.
Ester van de Wiel, De Tuinfabriek (The Garden Factory), 2013; Photo: Andrea Alessi.
At its best, the exhibition makes a familiar place feel new. Either by function or the contingencies of installation, many artworks reveal little-known spaces in ways that make you think differently about Hoog Catharijne and what goes on there. Ascend a private stairwell and find an enclosed rooftop-turned-vegetable-garden courtesy of Ester van de Wiel; visit a forgotten cabaret in pristine 1970s condition to watch a film by Gabriel Lester; or attend a backstage walking tour to discover subsurface locations and temporalities within the mall superstructure. Other projects change how you think about the spaces that everyone knows. Pilvi Takala's "permit-full zone”, for example, designates a normal shopping corridor as a place where visitors can do things that would usually require official clearances (the artist applied for as many permits on behalf of visitors as she could).
The purpose of The Mall – as both a structural and material entity – seems self-evident. Yet The Call of the Mall unveils a game in which we didn’t even know we were players. It reveals social, political, historical, and of course economic systems and structures that lie beneath the shopping center’s shiny commercial facade. Hoog Catharijne may be an eyesore, but to many it’s not merely a shopping center, but also a place of employment, transportation, recreation, or even, in the case of those living in one of its three apartment complexes, a home. And through the end of September it’s an improbable art gallery that will perhaps endear you to it as you look beyond your shopping list and consider its hidden ecosystem, the spaces, paces, and people that call you to the mall.
(Image on top: Sylvie Fleury, C’est La Vie!, 2013, performance; © Photo: Andrea Alessi.)